SEATTLE TIMES: "Bill Bryant’s challenge: Topple Washington’s dynasty of Democratic governors"

The silver-haired Republican running for governor emerged from a tour bus on McMenamin’s Anderson School grounds in Bothell, blowing past three protesters demanding he take a stand on Donald Trump as he headed into a dimly lit meeting room.

Inside, the dozen or so volunteers who greeted Bill Bryant — mostly seniors armed with flip phones and lists of potential voters — listened as the candidate instructed them on the finer points of placing calls to get the word out on his campaign.

His path to victory, Bryant explained, hinges on turning out some 100,000 Washingtonians — mostly likely-Republicans or conservative-leaning independents — who failed to vote in the 2012 election but probably would have backed Rob McKenna, Washington’s last GOP candidate for governor.

That’s about 5,000 more potential votes than the number that ultimately separated McKenna from Democrat Jay Inslee four years ago.

“I can’t emphasize how important this is,” Bryant told his volunteers. “Getting these people to turn out is the difference between 49 percent and 51 percent.”

Bryant’s “whistle stop” in Bothell — among 23 campaign stops he made around the state before the Aug. 2 primary election — shows the challenge he faces in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1980.

Now focused on the November election, Bryant is introducing himself to voters as a moderate with environmental, education and business credentials while downplaying his GOP ties. It’s a delicate strategy as he tiptoes along his razor-thin path to unseat Gov. Inslee.

“This election isn’t about Bill Bryant or his name recognition, it’s a referendum on Jay Inslee,” said Randy Pepple, a Republican strategist not directly involved with Bryant’s campaign. “Bill just needs to show that he’s a qualified alternative.”

In part, that’s meant Bryant — a former two-term Port of Seattle commissioner and founder of a Seattle consultancy firm that helps agricultural businesses export products — has refused to say whether he supports his party’s polarizing presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

Democrats, in turn, have sought to connect Bryant in any way possible to the top of the Republican ticket.

“Jay Inslee wants to turn this race into a referendum on the presidential election,” Bryant said. “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to talk about the issues of the state of Washington.”

For Bryant, staking out a position for or against Trump could alienate some conservatives, undecided independents and even disgruntled Democrats from his camp. Bryant will need them to beat Inslee, who owned an 11-point advantage over the GOP challenger in the primary.

Bryant won twice as many counties as Inslee in the primary, including all counties east of the Cascades. But Inslee took Washington’s biggest population centers and crushed Bryant in King County, 64 percent to 27 percent.

Rural, “Huck Finn” boyhood

Who is Bill Bryant?

“I’m a kid who grew up in a very rural community over on the Olympic Peninsula during the 1960s,” Bryant said during an interview at his Sodo campaign headquarters. “Kind of a Huck Finn way to grow up — hiking in the Olympic Mountains and playing on the beaches of Puget Sound.”

What was happening in 1981, the last time we had a Republican governor?

Bryant, 56, who’s married to Barbara Feasey, operations director of the Frye Art Museum, is a longtime resident of Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood. But his rural upbringing and early education have become a common refrain when touting the centerpieces of his campaign: education reform and Puget Sound conservation.

Bryant’s father, a schoolteacher in the Hood Canal School District, taught him the value of a good education, and his romps through nature embedded a deep respect for the environment, he said. His boyhood dreams to become an oceanographer eventually morphed into a vow to restore Washington’s salmon runs and ensure “that when I die, Puget Sound will be cleaner than when I was born.”

But more than anything else driving his campaign, Bryant said, is a desire to reform the public-education system amid a state Supreme Court ruling that says Washington must beef up state funding for schools.

“If I can go down to Olympia and spend four years figuring out how to provide equal access to all kids and innovating schools so that they’re meeting their needs in the 21st century,” said Bryant, who has no children of his own, “I would have felt good about what I’ve done and I can go back to my company.”

Bryant has yet to roll out his full education plan. But he said it will include details about implementing different types of public schools to meet the needs of different types of kids; increasing the authority given to principals to spend money; and “reinventing the last two years of high school” to help reduce dropout rates and increase pre-apprenticeship work-force readiness programs.

Bryant said he believes Washington can meet its education-funding obligations without raising taxes or taking money away from other state departments or programs by first getting “a good handle about how much is being spent at the local level.”

For his own education, Bryant attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., before returning to the Northwest in the early 1980s to launch a career steeped in trade-related issues.

He worked for Gov. John Spellman, Washington’s last Republican governor, helping the state’s apple, pear and cherry industries in their exporting efforts. In 1992, he founded Bryant Christie Inc. (BCI), a consultancy firm that helps agricultural businesses overcome foreign trade barriers. Today, Bryant’s company employs 35 people in offices in Seattle and Sacramento, Calif., he said.

“Having built a company that operates on both sides of the mountains is as or more important than my public experience as a port commissioner,” Bryant said.

Reforming the Port

Bryant won election in 2007 just as a Port corruption scandal erupted. A scathing state audit found a host of failings had wasted taxpayer money and left the Port “vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.”

Bryant and newly elected Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton guided the commission’s reform efforts, which included hiring an outside investigator and rewriting Port rules to ensure more accountability and transparency.

“It was a difficult year, ” said Tarleton, now a Democratic state representative from Seattle who praises Bryant but endorses Inslee. “Bill is calm under pressure. I found him honest and direct, and he’s always willing to put in the work...”

“…He touts himself as an astute fiscal manager and noted that under Inslee, Washington has one of the 10 highest unemployment rates in the nation. Bryant vowed to reverse that trend, partly by managing Washington more like a business.

“We don’t have any plan of how to take the regulatory power and the budget of this state and use it in a way that actually helps the private sector generate jobs,” Bryant said. “As a CEO and somebody who has built a company, if you don’t have a strategic plan for running your company, your company is in a maintenance mode…”

…But Bryant’s Port work also won its share of praise.

“We thought he did a good job,” said Jordan Royer, vice president of external affairs for the Port Merchant Shipping Association, which represents operators of marine terminals and container vessels. “He stayed focused on the core mission of the Port — to build infrastructure and preserve middle-class waterfront jobs...”

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Mike Foster